Georgia on my Mind: An Ode to Southern Gentrification

by Nneka M. Okona

Nneka M. Okona
Essayist • Writing coach • Healer • Forever traveler. Helping writers to write, empaths to live creative lives and women to see the world one city at a time.

Last February, I sat in Tierra Burrito Bar off Calle de Sagasta in Madrid, the Spanish city Id called homefor six months. Chicken tacos and multiple shots of tequila were my only company in the otherwise empty restaurant. As I downed the first shot, the tequila burning my throat, a groan beginning to escape my lips, I heard the opening notes of Ray Charles Georgia on my Mindstarting to play on some speakers in the corner.  My eyes watered and I could feel the emotions I was suppressing as they formed a lump in my throat.

I was homesick.

The song, the melodious tune which is rife with so much emotion, rings true for me no matter where in the world I am Georgia is always on my mind. I missed home despite the complicated, often tenuous relationship I have with both my home state, Georgia, and my hometown, Stone Mountain.

With the constant shifting of the mecca that Stone Mountain orbits, the metropolis that is Atlanta, its hard to not think about gentrification the shifting of the character and culture of a city due to increased property values and so-called urban development and revitalization effortswhich has slowly staked its claim on home, my city. The shifting which shows no signs of letting up any time soon, if at all.

Growing up as a little Black girl in the city of Stone Mountain in the 1980s and 90s, meant the constant reminders of the wonderful “legacy” Confederate soldiers Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had provided, due to their faces carved on the face of the massive monadnock.

Only 15 miles away, a straight shot on Highway 78 West and a switch to either 85 North or Interstate 75/85 was the Atlanta skyline looming ahead as the congestion clogged the lanes.

And unbeknownst to me and many of us deep in suburbia, shrouded by our neighborhoods with manicured lawns and homeowner association guidelines was a rumbling, the rumbling of Atlanta-centric gentrification in its earliest stages.

The numbers, the stats, show proof of this rumbling which is happening and has been happening. For instance, recent Governing Magazine study notes Atlanta has the fifth fastest rate of gentrification, trailing closely behind Portland, Washington, DC, Minneapolis and Seattle. Mic reported similar findings last year, listing Atlanta as sixth on its list of gentrifying cities. The findings from the Governing study show gentrification has affected neighborhoods such as the downtown area at large, East Atlanta, Edgewood, Old Fourth Ward, Cabbagetown, Kirkwood, Reynoldstown and the West End the hardest.

For instance, in July, it was announced that the land on which the Masquerade, an Atlanta landmark and concert venue in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, is located was sold in a $2.8 million development deal. Authorities announced a preliminary plans for an apartment complex and restaurant. In Kirkwood, where I used to work and stroll through on my lunch break, the city and developers have gradually  shuttered and gutted historic homes, so they can be rebuilt with a new aesthetic and look. Downtown, the city of Atlanta sold Underground Atlanta for more than $25 million the end of September to a South Carolinian developer. The developer has emphasized, although the deal won’t close until early next year, “revitalization efforts” for both the Underground storefront and the nearby areas above ground. Plans have been discussed to build a high-rise tower (because redevelopment is never complete without condos), a grocery store and other retail sites.

The American Sociological Association touched on this some years ago, too, back in 2003,  leading up to when they hosted their annual meeting in Atlanta that same year. There, researchers Lesley Williams Reid and Robert M. Alderman delved into looking at what this means for a city like Atlanta, one which per the U.S. Census in 2010 was captured as being 54 percent Black.

Many things in the murky, muddled, mixed bag which is Atlanta contribute to the ill-fated g-word but chief among those, in my opinion, race.

There are assuredly very complex reasons for why and how this phenomenon of gentrification plays out in Atlanta and in general. But one has to wonder what it means for the vibrancy of Black culture which resides in these cities and in Atlanta. Where does it go? Where will it go?


 

For people like me, and other Black folk who have pledged a fierce allegiance to a city of Atlanta, this city is emblematic of uncompromising Blackness and Black pride, a stomping ground of an era of Black progressivism and modern-day civil rights heroes Maynard Jackson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Bill Campbell, Shirley Franklin.

Atlanta is the birthplace of the AUC the Atlanta University Center of HBCUs Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman, and Morris Brown, institutions that gave so many a place to call educational home when other schools frowned upon us, isolated us, didnt welcome us with open arms.

There’s Auburn Avenue, or Sweet Auburn as many know it as, a street lined with Black-owned businesses, the epitome of ujima and ujamaa. An area in the heart of the city where friends and neighbors were able to greet each other, help each other, invest in each other by supporting each other’s businesses.

Within the Sweet Auburn District is Ebenezer Baptist Church, the beating heart of Black folk during the 1960s and 1970s and a refuge from the White supremacist ideologies which tried to suffocate us, dehumanize us, rob us of our hope. A safe haven within the chaos, uncertainty and grief grief of not knowing if there was any place in the world, even in Atlanta, where Black folk could feel and be free in the fullest sentiment of the word.

Underground and Little Five Points. Where I went often with my own family, foregoing the car ride from the suburbs and taking MARTA. Walking into the urban caves, teeming with tourists, the smell or pralines made from Georgia pecans, honey roasted pecans, souvenirs emblazoned with Atlanta on them everywhere. Hats, socks, t-shirts, bandanas, tote bags, playing cards. A smorgasbord of food, people, a spirit of people undeniable. A contagious energy and pride swelling through the air.

Kirkwood, Edgewood, Old Fourth Ward, Cabbagetown, Decatur where its greater,Memorial Drive, Candler Road, Grant Park.

Atlanta is a city with a reputation, a city which has become a stomping ground for Black professionals, of Black people seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of New York, Washington, DC, LA. It’s a chance to slow down, a bearable cost of living, wide open spaces, greenery, peace, a chance to exceed, flourish and thrive, not just survive with leftover crumbs.

What does it mean when our history, our humble beginnings are slowly being shuttered off for the exchange of too-expensive condos, unremarkable chain restaurants and unimaginative designs which do away with our historical markers? Of the exact things which have made us Black folk proud all these years to call Atlanta home? What will it mean when our spaces and places which have made us, the ones which we couldve fondly recalled become only memories to reflect upon?

Thinking about how much Atlanta has changed since I was a little girl oft inspires a profound sense of both hopelessness, melancholia and anxiety. It’s part of the reason, for the most part, I’ve stayed away since moving two years ago; to shield myself from having to witness firsthand the shifts and facing the slew of questions to which I have no answers. Of being in a city, my city, and my favorite neighborhoods that I might no longer recognize. Of seeing the dilution of Black culture as I’ve always known it, in its fullest vibrancy being changed to something else.


I think back often to those tacos and tequila shots in Madrid last year and how hearing that Ray Charles song made me cry from the depths of my soul. I left Atlanta for a myriad of reasons. I had grown tired of the slowness of Southern life, I wanted to trade comfort and familiarity with adventure and travel and I wanted to prove I could survive elsewhere other than where I grew up. But it hurts to know coupled with me leaving, due to gentrification I’ve become even more of a stranger to home. Home may never feel the same again.

The thought is alienating and scary. I don’t have an understanding of where Atlanta is headed next. Gentrification is layered, messy, multi-faceted and occurs over long periods of time. It’s been the case elsewhere around the country and is most certainly the case for Atlanta. Only now people are starting to pay attention in Atlanta.

When I spoke to Rodney Carmichael, who is a senior writer for Creative Loafing Atlanta, he told me that he thought even more people would pay attention to gentrification in Atlanta once the next Census, although it’s not for another five years, shows the demographic numbers for people to see, evidenced in hard data.

I agree with him. And once that moment comes, it’ll be even more sobering for those of us who have witnessed the gradual changes and shifts. Our pain will be a shared, public pain.

Maybe then our mourning will become less nonsensical to those on the outside looking in. Maybe then we’ll be able to begin to make peace with it all. And maybe then, at that point, clinging to what once was won’t be seen as full of despair, settling, the art of sacrificial compromise and as a last resort as it does now.

About the Authors:
Published by Nneka M. Okona
Essayist • Writing coach • Healer • Forever traveler. Helping writers to write, empaths to live creative lives and women to see the world one city at a time. View all posts by Nneka M. Okona

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